It’s a typical parent’s dilemma. Their child comes home from a trip with friends with a whole new look. Shorter hair, different clothes, new attitude — it’s a combination sure to equal parental stress.
“I had short hair before I left!” the daughter notes indignantly.
“Not this short!” mom retorts.
The battle ends with a baffled mom, and a kid who will ultimately do her own thing.
Other typical scenes abound: a family going to church and the kids are stone-cold bored, the kids playing ball in the yard, a mom upset the kids are riding their bikes without helmets, a family prepares for their day by sitting down to breakfast together.
What’s not typical about the scenes of domestic life is that gay and lesbian parents head all these families. The five families are the focus of a new film called Our House: A Very Real Documentary about Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents. According to the press materials, “the documentary profiles sixteen sons and daughters-between the ages of four and twenty-three-in five families who are facing the usual highs and lows of growing up while encountering varied reactions from extended family, classmates, teachers, neighbors, and public officials.”
It’s those typical moments that the film’s producer, Meema Spadola, wanted to highlight.
“I want people to find some moment of identification where they say `wow, that’s just like me,’ or `that’s so normal.’ It just makes it clear in people’s minds that gay and lesbian families exist just like any other family and they have their ups and downs and are just like other families but in some ways are undeniably different,” Spadola told Whosoever in a recent phone interview.
Those differences become apparent rather quickly. In the case of 15 year old Ryan, the differences produced harassment and physical violence. Ryan, who lives with her moms, Sophia and Vickie, in Arkansas, was excited when her moms announced they were getting married. Naturally, she wanted to share the happy news with her classmates, but they weren’t has excited. In fact, her classmates turned on Ryan, calling her names like “lesbo” and “dyke.” The trouble came to a head when a boy attacked Ryan, choking her right in front of the school. A nearby teacher saw the whole thing, and did nothing. Ryan’s mom, Sophia, complained to the school, but was only told it was she who needed to change not the kids at school. Sophia had had enough. She took Ryan out of school and set her up to finish her studies at home.
In another case, a four year long battle ensued over visitation rights to a child born to two lesbians by artificial insemination. The man who donated the sperm for New York couple Sandy and Robin sued for rights to visit their daughter, Ry. The suit put the family through many trying experiences, including court ordered psychological visits for Ry and her sister older sister Cade, born from a different sperm donor. “We were forced at every step to articulate how we’re a family,” Sandy remembers. In the end the court agreed they were indeed a family, and refused visitation rights to the donor.
Sometimes, the typical and atypical merge, especially where religion is concerned. One family, from Arizona, is Mormon. Dwight’s youngest daughter, 14-year-old Danna, continued to attend the Mormon church after her father came out and divorced her mother. Despite hearing repeated condemnation of homosexuals from the church, she decided she could overlook it since her faith was important to her. Not so, her older sister, 16-year-old Ember, who asked, “How can you go to a church that hates your father?” She dropped out of the Mormon religion.
Some, like Pat and Rochelle in New York, find accepting churches to attend.
“I thought it was interesting to show the African-American family at church where frankly the kids are a little bored to be there,” Spadola notes. “But it’s really positive that they hear a person standing up there saying no matter how you express your love it’s good in the eyes of God. That’s a radical thing for people to hear. I wanted people to see there was another option out there that it doesn’t have to be, in the case of the Mormon family, a place where they hear their father is going to hell.”
It’s moments like these in the film that are painful to watch. Not everyone is accepting of gay and lesbian families, and aren’t afraid to say so. On top of that, there’s nothing magical about families headed by gays and lesbians. They, too, have problems. That’s something Spadola wanted the film to capture.
“One of the things that was hard for me in making this film was wanting to make something that felt very real versus like propaganda. There is a tendency in the community to say our rainbow families are the happiest families that can do no wrong,” she explains. “I wanted to show some of the stuff that was harder to watch. Some may be hurt or shocked by that but I wanted to take a chance and err on the real side than the `love makes a family’ side. Other things that make a family are yelling at your kid, fighting with your brother, being a rebellious teenager and not doing your homework.”
Another important dimension to family is community. Spadola, who is the daughter of a lesbian, grew up in a small town in Maine during the ’80s.
“There were no images of gay and lesbian families out there at all,” she says. “I thought I was the only one. I was desperate for any information and any sense of community.”
It’s that sense of community that Spadola says is so important for kids of gay and lesbian parents to find.
“Gay people understand the need for community when they come out,” Spadola explains. “Kids also have a coming out period having gay and lesbian parents whether they’re born into the family, adopted or a parent divorces and comes out. Kids need community as well and to find support. This documentary is one way to create a community and let kids know that there is a huge group of kids out there like them.” That may be this film’s biggest accomplishment – letting kids know they’re not alone, nor freaks, for having gay or lesbian parents. Many of the kids in the film seem uncomfortable talking about their parents, but not because they’re ashamed of their parents.
“They are afraid of the reactions they might get,” says Spadola. “Sometimes you do get bad reactions. It’s a strange thing to be judged so intensely about something that is not you. I think kids get sick of explaining, they worry about reactions from friends, they feel it’s not their jobs to educate everybody.”
One teenage boy laments he wishes he could get everyone in a room and tell them all at once so he’d stop having to explain his parents to everyone he meets. But perhaps Ry sums up the feelings best when she says, “I wouldn’t say having lesbian parents is an issue in my life but I wonder will it ever just be nothing.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.